Review: Batman: Universe hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

August 19, 2020

 ·  1 comment

Brian Michael Bendis will certainly write on one of the Batman titles at some point (maybe, like the Superman titles, both!). In his tenure at DC so far, however, I’ve been impressed with what seems like Bendis thwarting expectations, or at least taking his time — where everyone thought he’d go straight to Batman, he instead went to Superman; where everyone thought he was destined for a mature, gritty title, he started with Young Justice and Wonder Comics. And while I’m sure Bendis' Batman will one day be gritty as can be among his first forays into Batman is Batman: Universe with Nick Derington, a charming, lighthearted take on Batman that’s as fun as they come.

[Review contains spoilers. Written before the Young Justice cancellation.]

What struck me most about Batman: Universe is Bendis' depiction of Batman in unexpected circumstances. Contributing to Universe’s all-ages tone is that Batman hardly strays from his even keel; he’s almost never nonplussed, and when he is, his solution is to calmly talk it out. We see this as early as Batman arriving in Jinny Hex’s small town, but first most prominently when he’s suddenly transported to Thanagar; Batman nonchalantly dis-armors himself so as to appear less threatening while at the same time talking up his friendship with Hawman and Hawkwoman. Later, when suddenly trapped inside a white lantern ring, Batman simply sits down and talks out his circumstances, trying various phrases until he finds one that elicits a response.

This is a particularly wise writing of Batman and of superhero comics in general, that I don’t think we just dismiss as easily as “Batman is a detective, so …” There are a multitude of writers who would have felt the need to put an action sequence in each part or over-dramatized the Thanagar sequence by making Batman escape from misguided captivity — especially writing this story in 12-page chunks for ostensibly a casual, young-skewing audience at Walmart. Bendis instead takes a lot of risk, going sometimes two whole “issues” without an action sequence — that’s a span of months for what’s already an atypical, irregular comics audience. This says to me volumes not only about Bendis' dedication to telling the story he wants to tell, but also to the maturity of his conception of the superhero medium.

As I understand it (from Bendis' interview with David Harper on Off Panel and etc.), Bendis crafted the story at least somewhat around what Derington wanted to draw. It surprised me that we didn’t see the usual suspects — no Wonder Woman at all, and Superman only barely (though his presence looms large) — with focus mainly on the places of the DC Universe (Thanagar, Dinosaur Island, Gorilla City) and not the people. The most prominent hero appearances are Green Arrow and Green Lantern, especially — a good two-thirds of this book is really Batman in Green Lantern-land.

I was put in mind of the Batman/Green Lantern team-up in Mark Waid and George Perez' Brave and the Bold Vol. 1: Lords of Luck, and indeed this book shares a lot with that one in terms of tone and the low continuity, low angst, all-the-heroes-are-friends aesthetic. Speaking of low continuity, low angst, it’s a rare thing these days to see a Batman/Nightwing team-up without bickering, where Batman simply accepts Nightwing as an equal and they go on to get the job done (letting alone a Nightwing story where Nightwing has all this memories intact). To be sure, when Bendis has Batman specifically ask Nightwing for his help, Bendis must know that sequence is smoother than the norm. It’s perhaps unfortunate that how easily Batman works with Nightwing is a political act on the part of the writer, but the way Bendis handles it is certainly in line with the story’s tone.

I hesitate even to pick at this book, lovely as it is, but if there was anything that bothered me, it was that there was not so much of a thematic ending — if Batman learned something through his travels, I don’t think the final 12 pages gave Bendis quite enough room to express it. Not that the final chapter isn’t extraordinary — with gorgeous splash pages both of Batman’s allies and rogues and Batman chasing Vandal Savage through DC continuity — but there’s also a sequence of Bruce Wayne having never been Batman that goes mostly unremarked afterward. (Given my druthers, Bendis and Derington could have been allowed an epilogue chapter just for this collection.) If anything, perhaps the closest we get to a moral of the story is when a security guard remarks, after Batman returns a stole McGuffin, “You gotta love living' in a universe with dis guy.” Only too true, as Batman: Universe demonstrates, but then again Batman: Universe is also a very specific, Silver Age-y, kinder, gentler presentation of Batman, too.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman: Universe

4.5

Rating

So Batman: Universe is great, a simple, non-taxing read, funny, and again fully appropriate for the pre-teen set as well as grown-up readers. I’d be happy to see Brian Michael Bendis and Nick Derington get together again; here’s to Batman: Multiverse! In the meantime, Bendis' slow pace plumbing the depths of the DC Universe is a great thing, showing me above all that he’s serious about sticking around for a while. I’m eager to see where his journey takes him, especially to unusual projects like this, on the way to writing Batman full time.

[Includes cover gallery, sketchbook]

Comments ( 1 )

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this in the giants. Between this and King’s Superman, Walmart has great material even if readers seemingly never noticed. Loved Derington’s art. Clearly someone decided this was the priority over Doom Patrol (although I guess this means those delays were Gerard Way’s fault).

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